Listening to the music of Ed Bland (1926-2013) transports me my youth growing up in New York City in the 70s. His use of texture in instruments and rhythms to build tension and energy is probably the greatest factor, but his work in television and film of the time also speaks to what audiences in the 60s and 70s were hearing all throughout the media.
Bland began his musical career as a jazz clarinet and sax player in Chicago before turning to composition after hearing a recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. He had conflicting feelings both about Western art music and jazz: To Bland, Western art music was dead music, to be used only for gaining technical command of one’s instrument; on the other hand, while he felt like he could improvise more daring and interesting solos in jazz, he also felt limited by the predictability of jazz’s cadential structure. Initially he felt that wanted to uncover the “secret of why Stravinsky’s music swung” and integrating it into his knowledge of jazz. He attended first the University of Chicago then the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Wrestling with the problems of how to incorporate what he called the “Eternal Now” into his music, he journeyed through West African drumming, serialism, musique concrete, the music of Stockhausen, Cowell, Beethoven, John Cage, Bo Diddley, the writings of John Dewey, and his pop contemporaries Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Pete Seeger and others. Although he had adopted an atonal, 12-tone approach early on, when shooting scenes for the semi-documentary “The Cry of Jazz” (this landmark film was released in 1959, and said by some to be the first film made by black Americans that challenged the humanity of white Americans, as well as the first hip-hop film), he was struck by the power and immediacy of gospel music. He moved to New York City in 1960 and began to incorporate the syntax of Funk and gospel music into his work as composer, arranger and composer/orchestrator for film and TV. He did projects with Jimi Hendrix and George Benson, and later with Lionel Hampton, Al Hirt, and Dizzy Gillespie, and was hired by Vanguard records as an executive producer. In the mid-80s he moved to L.A., still doing television and film work while composing western art music.
Bland felt that by bringing all the traditions of the past into the present and then the future, he had finally started to celebrate the “Eternal Now.” In his words: “The curse of pop music and jazz is that they are too predictable. Ideally, Art music should demand unpredictability...In my 31 “Urban Counterpoint” piano works, the musical language I’ve used is in the vernacular – the language of pop music and jazz. Unpredictability is introduced into this vernacular setting through a rampaging polyphonic/polymetric texture....Interestingly enough, the singer Beyonce leased my work “Skunk Juice” for sampling on her single, “Creole” and Atari Video Games leased “A Gritty Nitty” for their game TEST DRIVE UNLIMITED. Considering that these two pieces were written between 1966-’71 I would say that my Urban Classical Funk style has come full circle.”
Bland’s 1979 “Piece for Chamber Orchestra” is the work featured here today. At the time it was praised by “classical” composers and presenters, and almost 20 years later a 26-year-old hip hopper from South Central LA called it “Rap Without Words.”